Donald hurls himself through the front door, frowning and blowing ice clouds, the lower half of his apron trapped between his legs like an unruly skirt. He ignores the lunch crowd, mere shadows on the rim of his universe, and charges into the kitchen in the rear of Stillwater’s.
“You forgot the bread,” I can hear him pronounce, in that prepubescent voice of his, from the far end of the dining room, where I’m refilling a water pitcher at a wait station.
Uh-oh, I think, here comes round eleven. Donald has been circling the ring with Tattoo Argus, the new short-order cook, all week.
“Wrong,” Argus growls. “You dropped it, or else you stuffed it up your — ”
“Argus,” interrupts Leo, the manager, in I-mean-it mode, “just give him another loaf.” His voice drops, but I can imagine what he’s saying: “Cut this crap, I’m sick of it.”
I push through the swinging door to the kitchen and get slapped by heat and the smell of chicken fat. Donald is shooting death rays at Argus, who’s on the business side of the chrome counter that separates them, mummifying a roll of Italian bread in tin foil and muttering.
Donald has been the dishwasher and delivery boy at Stillwater’s for seventeen years, and I know he hates that the new guy treats him like a moron and that there’s nothing he can do about it — he can’t fire Argus or even knock a little respect into him.
Argus, with his refrigerator chest and ripped tattooed arms, would surely pound him to powder in a fistfight. Donald’s short and skinny with stringy longish blond hair, David Spade minus the charm and a few teeth.
All Donald can do, evidently, is try to annoy Argus to death.
“Bread goes with every order,” Donald tells him with exaggerated patience, “except burgers, ‘coz they already have a bun.”
Argus’ tight smile straightens his droopy mustache into a hedgerow. He hikes the bread at Donald, who dodges it. “Hurry back, sweetcheeks,” he says, leaning across the chrome until he’s inches from Donald’s pink, cold-chafed nose. “You got another delivery coming up in three minutes.”
As I pick out pieces of brown lettuce from some pre-made salads I can see Donald’s mouth twitch, but no words, witty or otherwise, come out. He rescues the loaf from the floor, bags it and aims for the swinging door, where he collides with a man in a tan uniform, maybe a UPS guy.
The man steadies his footing and glares at Donald, who’s peeling himself off a wall. The man scopes the kitchen, sees Argus, me and another waitress, Peggy.
“You’re not allowed in the kitchen unless you work here,” Donald says, plainly struggling to recover his dignity. “Leo’s office is — ”
“Shut up, kid,” the man says. Everyone sees Donald as a kid, though he’s at least forty. “You,” he says, gesturing at me with a gun that has materialized out of nowhere, “open the cash register. Now.”
Where the hell’s Leo, I think as my wobbly finger punches a button that pops open the drawer. Ding. Shoving me to one side, the man starts grabbing bills and stuffing them into his pockets. Donald’s eyes are bouncing all over the room like he’s trying to figure out where to hide. Peggy is crying soundlessly, her hands clamped over her mouth.
Something shiny whirls through the air and the next thing I see is the large handle of a knife jutting out of the man’s back. He sinks to the floor. In one smooth leap, Argus clears the counter, runs up to the man and kicks him in the head.
“Call 911,” he says to me in an awed whisper, like he can’t believe what’s happened, what he has done.
While I’m fishing around in my purse for my cell, Donald approaches, warily, maybe worried the gunman will revive and lunge at his foot.
“Tattoo, dude,” he stammers.
Argus doesn’t say anything, just stands there looking down at the man he’s stabbed.
Too shaken to call myself, I hand the cell to Argus. I give Peggy’s shoulder a squeeze. Then I regard Donald, who I suspect is already contemplating the effect this event will have on the power dynamic between him and Argus.
Their fight, which — let’s face it — was heavily tipped against Donald from day one, is over. Argus morphed from a jerk into a hero the instant that knife penetrated skin, and Donald knows it.
“You want a shot of whiskey?” he asks Argus.
Leo sweeps into the kitchen with two police officers, who determine that the would-be robber is dead and his gun is a fake.
“You’re going to have to come with us,” a cop says to Argus. “It’s just a formality,” he adds, though we all sense that it is not.
Donald hums the theme from “Law and Order” while I tally up a delivery order bill. Behind the counter is Henry, an AA veteran and replacement for Tattoo Argus, who is still waiting to hear if he will be charged with manslaughter. I ask Donald to please wear his coat, but he waves away my concern and heads out in jeans, T-shirt and stained apron.
Through the window I watch him navigate the icy sidewalk, not skillfully but with determination. He has held on to his job for nearly two decades, longer than any other Stillwater’s employee, and I think I know why.
He can’t compete with the Arguses of the world, but he can outlast them.
Sally York‘s short stories appear in The Molotov Cocktail, Foliate Oak, Skive Magazine, and MicroHorror, among others.